Dr Julian Lewis: It is certainly encouraging to hear such sombre but sensible contributions from both senior Front Benchers in agreement on the basis for the Bill.
To respond briefly to the question posed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on whether there is an oversight arrangement for special forces – no, there is not. If Parliament were ever to have such an arrangement, it would probably need to be on the model of the ISC, but we are not putting in a bid for that role unless anyone proposes proportionately to increase the resources on which the Committee depends to do its already quite substantial agenda of tasks.
Almost 20 years ago – in 2004, to be precise – the Intelligence and Security Committee first recommended the introduction of a new Official Secrets Act, recognising the constantly developing and evolving dangers posed to the United Kingdom by hostile state actors. That was almost a decade prior to our 2013 report, “Foreign involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure” – Cm. 8629, if Members want to look it up – which eventually led to the National Security and Investment Act 2021, so this Government undoubtedly deserve credit for tackling at least some of the unfinished business begun by the ISC.
As in the case of the National Security and Investment Act, unfortunately today’s proposals – while taking significant steps in the right direction – still fall short in significant respects. Given the complexity of the issues addressed in the Bill, rigorous parliamentary scrutiny is essential. Not every piece of major legislation can be processed by means of a Committee of the whole House, but where it is proposed to add a major new element to a Bill after Second Reading, the whole House must have an alternative opportunity adequately to debate it.
The National Security Bill was expected to encompass three principal elements. The first is to modernise the offence of espionage and provide the police, as well as the security and intelligence agencies, with appropriate new powers and capabilities. This the Bill clearly undertakes, with its substantial proposed reforms of the 1911 to 1939 Official Secrets Acts, which we broadly welcome. The second should be to reform, or to repeal and replace, the Official Secrets Act 1989, which deals with the unauthorised disclosure of sensitive information, whether by public servants or by others, such as journalists, who are not employed by the Government. There is no trace of that in the present Bill, nor any apparent intention to incorporate the topic later.
Finally, one searches in vain for the long-heralded and much-anticipated inclusion of a foreign influence registration scheme – long advocated by the ISC and others, including the Foreign Affairs Committee – requiring individuals to declare, in a Government-managed register, any activities that they undertake for or on behalf of a foreign state. That is what we are told will be introduced by means of an amendment to the Bill, presumably in Committee or on Report. I heard the Home Secretary say earlier that it would be in Committee, which is good, but it could conceivably have been introduced even later, in the Upper House. I am glad to see the Home Secretary firmly shaking her head and ruling that out. As things stand, however, we cannot even say, with the late, great Meat Loaf, that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”, given that one of the three has yet to appear, and another – the urgently needed reform of the 1989 Act – is not going to happen at all.
It is odd, to put it mildly, that such an important component as the foreign influence registration scheme has not been incorporated in the Bill from the outset. The proposal to introduce it by means of a later amendment can only fuel suspicions that the Bill was published, for reasons unknown, before it had fully matured; or that the plan for the scheme had been dropped, then belatedly revived – the Home Secretary is shaking her head, which, again, is good; or that the Government are perfectly well aware of the details of the scheme that they intend to introduce, but wish to undermine or weaken parliamentary scrutiny by introducing it after the Second Reading debate is over, so that the Commons as a whole cannot decide on it before the Committee stage at the earliest.
Such suspicions could be at least partially dispelled by the Government’s agreeing that a Committee of the whole House will examine the Bill at the next stage of its journey through the Commons, and that plenty of time will be allocated for us all to examine the amendment on establishing a foreign influence registration scheme at the earliest opportunity. I will happily give way to a ministerial intervention now, offering an undertaking to that effect.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Priti Patel) indicated assent.
Dr Lewis: I am receiving indications that I may hear something in the summing-up speech, so I shall live in hope.
As I wish to leave scope for other members of the ISC to drill down into the detail of all three areas on which the Bill ought to be focusing, I shall confine myself to just a few comments on each. First – as we have said – we warmly welcome the repeal of the Official Secrets Acts of 1911 to 1939, with their references to century-old concepts of data targets, such as “sketches” and “plans”, which have long been superseded in the digital age. The new espionage offence created by clause 1 should enable the intelligence and security agencies more effectively to combat hostile state action in a world that has undergone a technological revolution in the modern era.
Clause 2 is a worthwhile attempt to protect valuable trade secrets, although we feel that there are issues of complexity and breadth of definition which will require simplification if this new system is to succeed. Clause 3 is strongly to be supported, both for criminalising the giving of assistance to a foreign intelligence service and for empowering the agencies and the police legitimately to unravel the hostile networks involved. Clause 12 creates a new offence of sabotage, at home or overseas: causing damage to vital UK assets or infrastructure, whether intentionally or recklessly. Clause 13 introduces an offence of foreign interference, but only for conduct that involves an intention to have a negative impact on the UK, for or on behalf of the foreign power in question. We suggest that it be broadened to cover those who behave recklessly, even if an intention to aid a foreign adversary cannot be proven.
Secondly, the failure radically to reform the Official Secrets Act 1989 leaves in place a requirement to demonstrate that actual harm has been caused by a civil servant or someone outside Government service when publishing classified information. However, the act of disclosing and specifying what harm has been done will often compound the problem and increase the damage; some prosecutions thus have to be dropped in order to prevent such further harm. Although the Law Commission has offered recommendations to cater for disclosures made genuinely in the public interest, those recommendations cannot even be considered other than in the context of the repeal, replacement or at least root-and-branch reform of the 1989 Act.
Mr Steve Baker: I absolutely support what my right hon. Friend says about the 1989 Act, section 1(1) of which states:
“A person who is or has been…a member of the security and intelligence services; or…a person notified that he is subject to the provisions of this subsection…is guilty of an offence if without lawful authority he discloses any information”.
There is no caveat about “damaging”. Is not the fundamental problem that a distinction is drawn between categories of person in how they are treated?
Dr Lewis: There is such a distinction. One could certainly argue that it is a graver offence for someone entrusted officially with secrets to breach that trust than for a journalist who thinks he has a scoop but knows that he might be harming the national interest to proceed nevertheless, recklessly or with deliberate intent to do harm. However, we are not talking about a spy rifling through a filing cabinet and taking pictures with his Minox camera; we are now in an age when a technician can download a gigabyte of information in a short period and have it published worldwide, unread even by the people who have published it. That is where there are huge gaps in the legislation, and closing them will require revisiting the 1989 Act.
The third leg is that there will be many practical issues with the contents and the proper parliamentary scrutiny of any amendment to the Bill to initiate a foreign influence registration scheme. Careful drafting will be required to catch those who are consciously and deliberately, or unreasonably and recklessly, acting on behalf of another state and its interests, without criminalising every parliamentarian who runs a bilateral international friendship group, for example. High on the agenda must be the issue of dodgy donations from questionable sources to political parties and campaigns – another good reason for the closest possible examination of the provisions that the Government eventually bring forward. Nevertheless, as has been pointed out, our Australian friends enacted their foreign influence transparency scheme as recently as 2018, while our US allies introduced their own legislation as long ago as 1938, so there is no shortage of precedents on which we can draw to get the legislation right and close at least one more gap in our national security arrangements.